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date: 24 March 2017

Coalition Politics and Foreign Policy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Coalitions are observed frequently in parliamentary systems. It is known that about 70% of all governments in post-War Europe have been one type of coalition or another. Israel has never been ruled by a single-party government in its history. Recently, majoritarian systems like Britain have produced coalitions, which took many by surprise.

The prominence of coalitions in parliamentary democracies compels researchers to study them more closely, often contrasting them with single-party governments. For a long time, Comparative Politics literature has investigated the dynamics of coalition formation and termination, as well as their domestic policy outputs. Studies find that coalitions impede the efficient production of public policy and lead to higher levels of corruption when compared to governments ruled by a single political party. Coalitions also diffuse responsibility among the governing parties, allowing them to avoid electoral punishment.

Coalitions generated interest on the international relations front as well. One avenue of research transcended the political party as a building block and conceptualized coalitions as a decision unit by focusing on the group of veto players in a regime’s foreign policy apparatus. This line of inquiry establishes that coalitions often result in deadlocks, thus rendering them inefficient actors in world affairs. A second line of scholarship looked at the effect of coalitions on the likelihood of international conflict. Situated in the framework of Democratic Peace, this literature tests the effect of multi-party governance to identify the domestic-institutional explanations behind the war behavior of democracies.

More recent research in the field of foreign policy analysis significantly departs from the Democratic Peace tradition. This avenue of scholarship accomplishes three things. First, it encourages theory development. Rather than taking a straightforward, variable-oriented approach, the literature of coalition foreign policy develops theoretical explanations for why coalitions behave differently than single parties in the international arena. Second, this literature bridges the gap between international relations and comparative politics by bringing the political party back into the theoretical underpinnings of foreign policy decision making. To this end, researchers dissect coalitions by studying, among other things, the effects of their size, ideological cohesion, and practices of portfolio allocation on how they make and implement foreign policies. Recent research takes a micro-foundational view by focusing on the dynamics of designing the government’s foreign policy roadmap in the formation stage. Finally, this literature illustrates the merits of methodological plurality in studying foreign policy. Using a combination of comparative case studies, process tracing, Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), and regression modeling, this body of work sheds light not only on the broader trends that characterize coalition foreign policy but also on the causal mechanisms and contextual factors that often go unaccounted for in statistical analysis. Multi-method approaches also improve existing theories on coalition politics and foreign policy, particularly those pertaining to responsibility diffusion, veto players, junior party hijacking, and diversion. Recent advances in role and image theories in Foreign Policy Analysis will likely spill over to the study of coalitions and their foreign policies, offering an interpretivist take alongside this positivist trajectory.